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‘As non-controversial as possible’
Indiana House Bill 1134 makes students and teachers wonder: Is school a place for divisive topics?
February 25, 2022
Social Studies teacher David Luers isn’t going to change his teaching style anytime soon. Despite House Bill 1134, the controversial education bill that attempted to create change, he will continue on in the same way as always, striving to shed light on all sides of the story and give students the most complete picture possible.
“I’m going to continue to do what I do until they force me to not be able to do that,” Luers said. “And so if that means I get fired, then I get fired. But it’s more important to me to teach history what I think and what historians think is the right way, than to censor it just for the sake of job security.”
As HB 1134 goes through the Indiana Senate, people remain divided on many of its aspects. It is one of several “Education Matters” bills that has been proposed by state legislators. Another bill, Senate Bill 167, died in the senate in mid January after a video of Fishers High School teacher Matt Bockenfeld debating with State Senator Scott Baldwin went viral. In the video Baldwin said that “I believe that we’ve gone too far when we take a position on those ‘isms,’” when referring to Nazism, Facism and the like. Outrage towards the bill sprang up all over the country, and it didn’t get any further traction.
On Jan. 26, The Indiana House of Representatives passed HB 1134, sparking mass criticism from educators who feared that it could limit their ability to teach certain topics. However, on Feb. 16, the committee from the Indiana Senate who is responsible for reviewing the bill came out with an amended version which, if approved, will alleviate many of the fears teachers had about the first version.
When it came to the senate, the original bill focused on three main parts: parental review of curriculum, restrictions on mental health services (for example, social emotional learning) and new guidelines for talking about eight outlined divisive concepts.
The most controversial section of the bill was that which dealt with the divisive concepts. This section contained eight tenets that surrounded how sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, national origin and political affiliation should be approached in schools.
One common misconception about the original form of the bill was that it prohibited teaching about certain topics. The bill never included this type of wording. However, it did say that no student “should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish responsibility, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, national origin, or political affiliation.”
Because of this line, many teachers became worried that if the bill passed, they wouldn’t be able to talk about some issues, such as racism or slavery, in the classroom anymore. Teaching those subjects can be uncomfortable, but for Luers, this discomfort is essential for student development.
“If you look at the history of any nation, it’s full of stuff that anybody could say it’s divisive, anybody could say it’s uncomfortable,” Luers said. “I am a believer that the only way we get change is from that discomfort. If we’re always comfortable, we’re never changing, we’re never growing, we’re stuck in the status quo.”
Many teachers were fearful of what could happen if the unamended version of the bill passed. Because the bill had the power to revoke teaching licenses if teachers “wilfully and wantonly” disobeyed it, some worried that lines from their lessons could be taken out of context, misunderstood and put into that category.
“What I’m afraid is that a lot of teachers, fearful about these lawsuits, don’t even let students have certain conversations in the classroom,” Bockenfeld, the Fishers teacher, said, “and so students have less rich experiences, less meaningful learning, less relevant conversations, because teachers, through no fault of their own, are afraid of this bill.”
Not only could the threat of lawsuits affect what teachers cover, but so could the parental curriculum review committee.
To Luers, it doesn’t make sense to let parents decide what their kids are and are not allowed to learn.
“I’ve never had a parent who has studied this material longer than I have,” Luers said, “so the idea that someone else who doesn’t know this material can tell me what I can and can’t do with this material, that’s problematic.”
Several teachers were also concerned that this bill could stifle some voices and perspectives, and lead particular students to feel unrepresented in their classrooms.
“If I’m not allowed to teach a certain something, then there might be some perspective or a voice that’s missing,” English teacher Sara Kohne said.
Another worry was that as teachers attempted to avoid the eight divisive concepts, they would have to choose less compelling topics to teach about. English teacher Julie Breeden said that these types of concepts are at the heart of literature and thinks that an unintended outcome of this bill passing could be less student engagement.
“If you want to have students reading works of literature that are interesting and thought provoking, there needs to be something happening in them,” Breeden said, “and I think there’s a risk that teachers will feel pressured into choosing works of literature that are as non-controversial as possible, and I think that then you could find students reading things that are not interesting.”
On Feb. 16, the Senate Education Committee released a new version of HB 1134, which is drastically different from the original, with only one paragraph remaining unchanged between the two.
The new version essentially took out everything that opponents felt was problematic with the first bill and narrowed down the tenets from eight to three. Principal Brian Knight said that this new version “wouldn’t change much for us” here at SHS because the school already does many of the things that could become required by law, like having a student management center available to parents and a formal way to file complaints.
This version is “100 times better than it was,” according to Tim McRoberts, Associate Executive Director for the Indiana Association of School Principals.
But, there are no guarantees that it will stick around. After the education committee in the Senate finalizes their copy of HB 1134, it will be heard on the Senate floor on Feb. 23, which is after the end of The Journal’s production cycle. If it is approved by the Senate, then it will go back to the House, who can then choose to either approve it or file a dissent. If they file a dissent, then the bill would go to a conference committee, made up of both House and Senate members, who would try to find a compromise.
All of these possibilities show that nothing in this bill is concrete.
“We’ll just kind of have to wait and see…,” McRoberts said. “But right now it’s good news that I think educators can feel… better about.”
Though most teachers would consider this bill losing its teeth to be a good thing, some are now concerned that the amended bill won’t be enough to appease those who first wrote it. With it being so watered down, does it accomplish what they set out to do? And, if this bill isn’t passed, will these issues be left behind?
Luers and Knight both agree that if the bill passes in its weakened form or is rejected altogether, those in favor of the original version may try to split up some of its principles into other bills, making them easier to pass.
“Could something like this come up on the coattails of something else that is pretty reasonable to pass, and it gets through because it’s tied to all those other pieces?” Knight said.
Divisive Concepts in the Classroom
The meat of the bill was centered around how to teach sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, national origin and political affiliation in school.
Most students and teachers agree that these topics are valuable and need to be addressed in schools. Some students said that they feel like the way that these topics are currently taught is appropriate, but others said they have had experiences where they weren’t taught fairly.
Sophomore Rose Haflett wishes that these topics were covered more in schools and said that she frequently has to research these topics on her own.
“I see myself having to research a lot of terms on my own that I don’t see covered in school,” she said.
But, according to senior Madeline Jarvis, teachers need to be careful in how they present these topics, and keep the students’ ages in mind.
When she was younger, she had to listen to the emergency phone calls from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Although she thinks it is vital that students learn about the attack, hearing the phone calls was traumatic for her and helped shape her opinion on how teachers should handle these subjects.
“I think that topics should be taught, but I don’t know that some of the more gruesome details should be given to the kids,” Jarvis said.
Kohne believes that talking about these issues in school is essential.
“If we don’t find safe spaces to have productive dialogue about these things, and spaces where we can agree to disagree, then we’re going to see some large societal problems stem from that,” she said.
But, she also made it clear that when teaching these topics, she is careful to honor all viewpoints and let kids develop their own perspectives, as long as they are respectful to others.
“My job is not to tell students what to think, my job is to encourage them to think,” Kohne said.
Luers said that he doesn’t think history can be taught correctly without covering these subjects.
But, when teaching them, there are certain lines that he stays within. For example, he makes sure that he can back up his stance with factual evidence.
Handling how and if teachers should share opinions on these subjects is complicated.
Junior Grayson Meece thinks it is best to keep opinions out of school to prevent problems from arising.
Junior Kaitlin Osborne believes that it’s OK to share opinions, as long as it’s not in a forceful way. Forcing kids to have a certain opinion is more dangerous than not covering the topic at all, according to Osborne. She said that she has been in classes that only taught one side of an issue. This lack of information influenced some of her classmates’ opinions, which she said was harmful in the school environment.
“I don’t think that it’s right for us to be sitting in a classroom and a teacher giving their opinion and we’re supposed to go along with it, because I’ve also experienced that,” she said.
Jarvis emphasized the importance of students learning both sides of an issue so that they can form their own thoughts.
“You cannot insert your own opinion into teaching. Kids need to know both sides of the situation,” she said.
What comes next?
HB 1134 still has several rounds of approval to go through before it could become state law, but legislators have a limited amount of time to reach a consensus on it, with the end of the legislative session set on March 14. No matter what happens, Knight knows that SHS will make it through. Cardinals will continue to learn and adapt, whatever the circumstances may be.
“Whatever is there, we’ll find a way to make it work,” Knight said. “We always do.”